You’ll commonly hear dog trainers talking about the importance of socializing your dog. Because all dogs are different, some are more likely to be social on their own than others. Regardless of the social nature of your dog, fearfulness can still develop towards people, objects, other dogs, specific locations and various situations.
Depending on how well you know your dog, you instinctively begin to predict things that may make your dog fearful, such as loud noises or fireworks, and prepare for those situations. Other times, you may not know a trigger before it happens.
New things are scary
Take my newly adopted pup Moose as a case study. We’ve been a team for about two months now, and I’m slowly starting to figure out things that make him nervous, such as young puppies and screaming children. I keep a list in my head and know that if I will be around any of his fear triggers to bring my special treats with me. It’s important to give your positive interactions through times of stress. But, you can’t expect to just have treats on you everywhere you go, right? Right.
When walking out of a building the other day, Moose makes eye contact with a yard ornament that moves, and has bright colors, and he totally and completely wigged out. I mean, he bellowed out the loudest bark I’ve heard so far. He then proceeded to start growling and backing up. He backed up so hard, he slammed himself into the door.
Here I am, walking out of a building, carrying my jacket under one arm, a cup of coffee in my hand, a binder full of training paperwork under my other arm and now a dog having an epic meltdown in a parking lot full of people and other businesses.
The easiest thing for me to do in this circumstance would have been to drag him to my car which was not very far. Above being a dog trainer, I am a human, so yes, I thought about it. However, avoiding situations doesn’t accomplish much and there’s no learning involved in that, so where’s the fun?
So I place/drop all of my things on the sidewalk, turn him around and walk back into the building. I give Moose a moment to calm down so he can focus on me. Once his brain has come back to reality, I ask him for sit and give him some pets. I connect with him. This is important. I’m still here for you buddy.
We venture back out the door, and I remind him, “Moose, I’m still here.” I speak softly to him and encourage him to follow me.
We take some time walking towards the thing. He is doing okay with some reassurance, but stops again about 15 feet away and has another fit. Patience is key. We take about two steps back and I ask him again for some eye contact and a sit (this is where foundational training also becomes so important). He looks at me, he looks ahead, he looks back at me and gives me a slight tail wag. At his pace we continue.
It took some time for him to feel comfortable going up to it, but eventually he did. He sniffed it, and backed up. He looked at it a bit. I reassured him it was okay. He sniffed it again, turned away from it. He still didn’t trust it fully, but he began to accept it.
Finally, he came to his own conclusion he’s uncomfortable with it, but willing to tolerate it’s presence. On this good note, I said, “okay, let’s go dude”, and we headed back towards the car. The next day, we repeated our exercise. On day two it took us about half the time of day one. Progress!
Why is it important to have taken the time to do this with my dog?
- We just worked through a fearful situation together
- He learned how to do something other than become reactive to something he is scared of
- We just spent time bonding by working through a problem together
Socialization and why it’s important
You’ll often hear dog owners say whole heart-idly that their dogs is fearful of men, or brooms, or newspapers because they must have been abused or suffered at the hands of a terrible hat-wearing man with sunglasses that liked to read newspapers and occasionally raise them over their dogs head. But what is actually more likely, is that the dog may have had a lack of exposure to sunglasses, hats or large objects moving above their heads. In Moose’s case, it was obvious he had never seen anything like this spinning lawn ornament before. Without ever having a good experience to relate these things to, the dog has nothing to base it’s reaction on. By basic means of animal survival, it’s smarter to be cautious of something until you know it does not pose a threat.
So taking what we now know into consideration, understand that fearfulness in dogs is absolutely normal. In fact, dogs that are over confident tend to be the ones that professional trainers keep an eye out for. However, for dogs to survive and continue to develop in our society and our societal standards we must work with them to either prevent fearfulness by socializing them as youngsters, or we must work to counter-condition their current fears through positive associations. The more your dog is exposed to in a positive way, the easier it becomes for them to overcome their fears in situations down the road.
Too much socializing?
Believe it or not, some dog owners make the mistake of going a bit overboard with socializing. I often hear from dog owners that they were told to take their dog everywhere with them as a puppy and to make sure to get them used to being around other dogs at a young age. What I actually see happen are puppies taken to overwhelming situations such as Church Street in Burlington or to the big dog section at the Shelburne Dog Park for “socializing.” For dog trainers, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing well-meaning dog owners traumatizing their dogs at young ages by flooding them with situations they are not developmentally prepared for. Every time I see a puppy get pinned at the dog park or jump back at the sound of a car horn on a busy road, I cringe. If the owners seem open to helpful feedback, I typically will engage in a conversation with them then and there. However, not everyone is always open to feed back from a stranger in public. Side note: The one thing that makes a trainer’s job difficult? There are dogs everywhere, but you can’t help every dog or owner you see.
Tying it all together
At the end of the day, the goal here is improving you and your dog’s amazing relationship. Each person-to-dog relationship I work with is unique and requires a different pace, structure and attention. Watching a dog’s trust build with their owner is my favorite part of what I get to do. Listen to your dog. Don’t ignore their fears and don’t force your dog into situations they are unsure of. Truly love your dog and your dog will love you back.